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Imagine you’ve got a few big changes you’d like to make in your life, and you’re considering hiring a life coach to help motivate you and keep you on track.

What qualities would you want in this coach? How would you like to relate to this person? What should this coach know about your values, priorities, budget, and time? These kinds of things will determine the outcome of your coaching experience and the changes you are able to make and sustain.

You probably won’t stick it out for long with someone who expects 5 a.m. workouts even though you’re not a morning person. You may start to rebel against a coach who demands a belt-tightening budget that doesn’t accommodate the occasional treat. And if your coach doesn’t realize those tango classes he recommends (because you said you wanted a creative outlet!) cause you to miss your kids’ bedtime three nights a week, you’re likely to think he doesn’t really care about you.

Yet, how often have you designed strategies for yourself that fail to take these kinds of real considerations into account? Think about it: You are the life coach and planner for your “future self” — the person who is best suited to execute all those plans.

For a lot of us, though, the relationship between our present self and future self is pretty darn rocky.

The Allure of Immediacy

To understand the disconnect between the ambitions of the present self and the noncompliance of the future self, let’s consider an aspect of human psychology called “immediacy bias.” This is our tendency to prioritize immediate emotions or opportunities for short-term gains. This bias causes us to forget our past emotions and devalue future benefits. This, in turn, causes us to favor impulsive, right-now behaviors.

In studies, people consistently chose immediate gains of $10 over waiting for a promised $20. Heart-attack victims “forgot” how terrifying their health crisis felt and reverted to habits and behaviors that contributed to it. When deciding what humanitarian organizations to support, donors consistently selected causes that aroused immediate emotion regardless of the objective level of need.

What might immediacy bias look like in your own life? Maybe you’re at the department store and the cashier tells you your bankcard has been declined. Your feelings of embarrassment trigger a plan to go straight home and take a hard look at your finances. But later in the day, your future self may not feel motivated to sit down with your bank statements and spend hours revamping a budget. A week later, your future self, forgetting that uncomfortable incident at the department store, decides to go out for an expensive lunch.

Coaching Your Future Self

The only way out of this common conundrum is to be a better designer for your future self. Think of her as your client — a client you know well. You know what makes her feel successful. You also know what freaks her out or discourages her. You know her weaknesses: when she procrastinates, what she avoids, why she becomes defensive. You know what she likes and what she dislikes. Use this information to your advantage.

After all, your future self needs you to design a plan that is infused with compassion as well as boundaries.

As you design a budget for your future self, build in allowances for the occasional $5 latte, because you know she’ll appreciate that small extravagance on days after the baby kept her up all night. Find an exercise regimen that fits with her schedule, featuring enough flexibility and time off that she doesn’t revolt against the plan. Create easy wins to build confidence and pride, and avoid designs that cause great suffering.

For setting boundaries, one effective design tool is a “Ulysses contract,” named after the mythological Greek traveler who instructed his sailors to tie him to his ship’s mast so he would resist the song of the Sirens, sea nymphs who lured men to their deaths with their seductive voices.

You don’t have to actually tie yourself to anything, but you could make a workout appointment with a friend so your future self feels a sense of commitment to someone (other than your past self) to show up.

Or configure your checking account to automatically transfer a percentage of deposits into savings, allowing your future self to put aside money for something important. You could bring only cash on your shopping trips, so your future self can do the right thing when faced with the Sirens’ song at the store.

In every aspect of your life, think of yourself as a compassionate, boundary-setting designer for your future self. And like a designer, when you notice that your future self is unhappy with your design, try something else. Maybe she doesn’t like those tango classes after all — or maybe she just needs a studio with a schedule that allows her to have more family time, too.

Whatever your design strategy, your future self will appreciate and respond to help from someone who is truly listening to her needs and creating appealing opportunities for her to be her best self.

Putting It Into Practice

Treat your future self like your favorite client. Write down your answers to these questions as a first step toward improving your relationship with your future self and becoming a better designer for the changes you want to make.

  1. Look back: What did you once design for your future self that was a total disaster — something your future self did not do or outright rebelled against? What succeeded?
  2. Think like a designer: What does this tell you about what you should change as the designer for your future self? What else do you know about her — weaknesses, preferences, etc. — that can help you create a successful experience?
  3. Design a new approach: What allowances or boundaries do you need to put in place to keep your future self on track? What are your backup plans for motivating her when these allowances and boundaries are no longer effective? (Struggle with setting boundaries? See “How to Set Clear Boundaries” for more.)
Illustration by: David Cutler

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